It was 51 years ago today, the day the Detroit Red Wings forgot how to play.
Things were already dismal for the Red Wings as they arrived for a Saturday appearance on Hockey Night In Canada. They would be playing against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Maple Leaf Gardens on January 2, 1971. Detroit had lost seven of the last eight games. In that span, there were two setbacks against the eternally-woeful California Golden Seals. There was also a 5-2 loss to the first-year expansion Buffalo Sabres.
As bad as it was for the Winged Wheelers, it was about to get much, much worse.
The previous day, Red Wings legend Gordie Howe and a passenger were heading in his car to Windsor in order to catch the team charter flight to Toronto. Recognizing Mr. Hockey instantly, the Canada Customs only had only query before letting him enter the country.
“When the hell are you gonna get rid of that guy Harkness,” the border guard asked Howe, who was too embarassed to tell the officer that the fellow ridiing shotgun with him was in fact Red Wings rookie head coach Ned Harkness.
That embarassment would pale in comparison to the one the Maple Leafs were about to hand Detroit. By the end of the second period, the rout was on. It was 6-0 Maple Leafs.
Toronto would pour the pain on in the third frame with seven unanswered goals for a 13-0 victory. Fittingly, the final goal of the night was the result of an errant clearing attempt by Detroit forward Nick Libett banking off the right skate of Red Wings defenseman Serge Lajeunesse and past goalie Don McLeod.
To this day this outcome remains the most lopsided defeat in Red Wings history.
Red Wings Darkness With Harkness
“I’ve made mistakes in Detroit,” Harkness admitted on the day of the 13-0 loss to columnist Jim Coleman. “And maybe some of my mistakes have been costly. But I don’t shoot the puck into the net. My critics can’t blame me for everything.”
Ahh but they did. Within days, Red Wings GM Sid Abel was fired. Harkness was promoted to GM. The Wings would miss the playoffs that season and each of the enusing six campaigns. It’s an era forever dubbed by the Detroit faithful as “The Darkness With Harkness.”